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State law can stymie police misconduct inquiries. Legislators may have a fix.

A Wyoming agency’s fight to get personnel records from Albany County Sheriff’s Office five years after a killing has spurred legislative action.

POST Director Chris Walsh (left) and Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Director Allen Thompson (right) testify to the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee Nov. 6, 2023. (screenshot)

by Tennessee Watson, WyoFile

t’s been five years since former Albany County sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling shot and killed Laramie-resident Robbie Ramirez. Yet, because of ambiguities in state law, the agency that certifies police officers in Wyoming still hasn’t been able to access Colling’s personnel records or complete its investigation of his fitness to serve.

The Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill Tuesday that would authorize the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to access the personnel records it says are needed to thoroughly review police misconduct allegations. 

The problem 

Ramirez, who was unarmed and living with mental illness, was the third person Colling killed on duty. While serving with the Las Vegas Police Department, Colling shot two people — both shootings were later deemed justified — and was fired for beating a third. He then returned to his hometown of Laramie to join the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. 

Protesters hold signs in front of Albany County Courthouse on Nov. 4, 2019, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Robbie Ramirez by Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling. Ramirez was the third person Colling shot and killed. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Many wondered why, given his track record, he was able to wear a badge and gun in Wyoming. 

In the wake of Ramirez’s Nov. 4, 2018 killing, POST — the state agency responsible for training, certifying and decertifying law enforcement in Wyoming — received seven complaints, 14 letters and 2,608 signatures in favor of Colling’s decertification, records show. 

Colling resigned from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in 2021, but a decertification by POST would disqualify him from future law enforcement work in Wyoming.

POST’s ability to thoroughly investigate Colling hit a brick wall when Albany County refused to release his personnel records to the agency, Director Chris Walsh explained to the judiciary committee. While not unique to Albany County — three out of the seven requests for records Walsh has made since 2019 have been rejected — the effort to get Colling’s files highlighted how ambiguity in Wyoming statute limited POST’s authority to obtain records.  

“It is difficult at times to be the one that’s responsible to ensure that people are hired properly and maintain employment properly when you don’t necessarily get the access to the records,” Walsh, a former police officer himself, told the committee Monday. Access to personnel records “could prove or disprove allegations in an investigation against an officer,” he said.  

After the Albany County Sheriff’s Office refused to honor POST’s requests for Colling’s personnel records, the matter went to court. On Aug. 25, Judge Misha Westby, of the district court in Albany County, denied POST’s request for Colling’s personnel files. 

Westby concluded that the Wyoming Public Records Act provides grounds to deny access to personnel files, as well as medical, psychological and sociological data, and that nowhere in state statute is there an exception granting POST access to this information for investigatory purposes. 

The fix

The judiciary committee’s draft bill — Peace officers records and reporting — intends to address the statutory shortcoming Westby identified. 

Last session, a similar bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) and Reps. Art Washut (R-Casper) and Karlee Provenza (D-Albany), died before making it to the House floor for debate. 

This year’s version more clearly defines that POST shall be granted access to police personnel records for “purposes of investigating or determining a peace officer’s initial certification, continuing certification, suspension, revocation or termination,” and specifies agencies must fulfill requests within 30 days. Unfulfilled requests will trigger district court intervention. 

The draft bill, which passed the Joint Judiciary Committee unanimously Monday, will be considered during the upcoming 2024 legislative session beginning Feb. 12. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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